Vicky Barton (Jean Simmons) and her brother Johnny (David Tomlinson) arrive in Paris on the eve of the 1889 World’s Fair. They’re traveling through, but Vicky, excited about her first trip to Paris, convinces Johnny to spend the next day in the city and take her to the fair. That night, the siblings dine in Montmartre and see a show at the Moulin Rouge.
The next morning, Vicky waits for her brother to pick her up for breakfast. When he’s late, Vicky visits the hotel desk to get Johnny’s room key and check on him. Not only do they not have his key, but the proprietor tells Vicky no such room exists and Johnny was never there.
Frantic, Vicky searches for Johnny and tries desperately to prove he was with her. The more she insists her story is true, the more people think she’s crazy. With no money, no friends, and no proof, how will Vicky find her brother?
SO LONG AT THE FAIR follows the main ideas originated in Anselma Heine’s story “Die Erscheinung” (“The Apparition”), in the Richard Oswald-directed silent anthology film EERIE TALES (1919). The concept appears again in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES in 1938. Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1936 story THE WHEEL SPINS, THE LADY VANISHES adds Fascists and spies to the already tense tale of a young woman who meets the elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) on a train and then can’t prove she was ever there. In that film, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) finally convinces Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) she’s not a nut and the two fight fear, indifference, and bad guys to find their friend. Hitchcock recycled the story again for his ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS television series in 1955 in the episode INTO THIN AIR starring his daughter Patricia. That show involves a daughter searching for her missing mother and gives Alexander Woollcott story credit. The stories mostly feature young women in the lead roles who spend the majority of the stories trying to prove to pretty much everyone that they’re not insane and “Oh, could you please look for my brother/friend/mom?”
SO LONG AT THE FAIR differs from the other manifestations of this idea in its presentation. The Jean Simmons version was a Gainsborough Pictures production which means lavish sets, period costumes, and pearl-clutching drama. Costume drama is not usually my favorite film genre, but SO LONG AT THE FAIR is a good film with some genuinely tense moments. That probably has a lot to do with the cast and director.
Jean Simmons carries the film well. She’s a sweet and innocent girl in peril, but she’s smart and strong enough to stand up for herself and find her brother. She could easily have gone all limp and useless, but the story and the actress are stronger and that makes it more fun to watch. Along with Simmons, the cast includes a few other up-and-coming British actors who acquit themselves well and look lovely too. Honor Blackman has a small part as does the wonderful Andre Morel and the gorgeous Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde has a nice supporting role as a well-heeled artist living in Paris who helps Simmons in her brother quest. Bogarde is young and handsome and terrifically appealing in this film. He and Simmons look good together. Did I mention Dirk Bogarde is incredibly attractive? Oh all right. I’ll stop. He is though.
Another reason SO LONG AT THE FAIR WORKS as more than a vehicle for young stars is the direction by the talented Terence Fisher. Fisher directed a boatload of noir, thriller, and horror films for Hammer Film Productions from the 1950s through the 1970s and his ability in those genres transforms SO LONG AT THE FAIR from the usual Gainsborough melodrama to a more thrilling mystery and makes the heroine’s situation that much more frightening.
Unlike BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965) and other GASLIGHT-type films, we know Vicky’s brother exists. We’ve seen him. The question is will we and Vicky ever see him again?
I wrote this piece for the British Invaders Blogathon presented by Terence Towles Canote and his site A Shroud of Thoughts
Thanks for the inspiration, Terence!